Commentary

Master plan: Who succeeds Jackson?

Originally Published: August 18, 2009
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Phil JacksonJoe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe heir to Phil Jackson's throne in L.A. might be sitting somewhere in the picture above. Or not.

Just about the only hole in Phil Jackson's unparalleled NBA coaching résumé is that he has not spun off successful assistant coaches, one of the reasons the Lakers find themselves with no obvious replacement whenever Jackson departs for good.

Jackson hasn't sprouted a coaching tree like Bill Walsh. When Kurt Rambis left the Lakers for the Minnesota Timberwolves this month he became the sole current head coach from Jackson's bench and only the third Jackson assistant to become a full-time head coach. (Jim Cleamons in Dallas and Bill Cartwright in Chicago were the other two.)

Part of this scarcity of subsequent success is due to Jackson's preference for older assistants such as Tex Winter, Johnny Bach and Frank Hamblen, rather than up-and-coming prospects. That's one of the reasons for Jackson's accomplishments; coaches such as Cleamons have tried to install the triangle offense in their new jobs, but they didn't have any of Jackson's old assistants who understood the offense's intricacies. Jackson had the triangle's creator, Winter, by his side, which would be like having one of the Wright brothers as a co-pilot for your first flight.

It works for Jackson and the franchise in the short term, but imagine the Lakers' position if medical reports led doctors to recommend that Jackson should retire. Their choices would range from inexperienced to unaccomplished, almost inevitably going from the only coach with double-digit NBA championship rings to one with zero.

Rambis had filled in for Jackson when Jackson's health issues prevented him from coaching, and Jackson even floated the idea of having Rambis coach the road games this coming season. But now Rambis is gone, a departure that has created two schools of thought: He's off to Minnesota to get training for the Lakers gig, or the reason he left is because Kobe Bryant would not have signed off on his ascension to the head-coaching job in L.A.

[+] EnlargeRambis/Bryant
Vincent Laforet/Getty ImagesKurt Rambis and Kobe Bryant didn't see eye-to-eye in '99.

When Rambis took over for Del Harris in 1999, one moment that might have kept the "interim" tag from getting removed was a late-season huddle incident in which Bryant refused to follow Rambis' directions and an exasperated Rambis gave up and told Bryant to do whatever he wanted. Shaquille O'Neal wasn't enamored with Rambis either -- this might have been the only thing the squabbling superstars agreed on -- and went upstairs after the Lakers were swept out of the playoffs by the Spurs to demand a coach on the level of Jackson or Chuck Daly.

But whatever the state of Rambis and Bryant's relationship, it couldn't have been as frigid as Jackson and Bryant in 2004, when Jackson advocated trading Bryant and Bryant publicly greeted the news of Jackson's lame-duck status with a rousing yawn of indifference. Bryant wasn't exactly advocating the return of Jackson in 2005, but that didn't stop the Lakers from bringing him back. Now things have worked out just fine.

Of course, Jackson's return followed the Lakers' first playoff-less season in 11 years, when Bryant's influence was at an ebb. Now, Bryant just delivered a championship, taking the whole organization off the hook for the Shaq trade once and for all, and he's eligible for a contract extension. He has the clout again. He's professed his interest in Mike Krzyzewski, and one observer noted that Coach K's declaration in June that "I would never leave Duke until I leave coaching" came just before Jackson's public announcement that he was returning to coach the Lakers next year. In other words, if the signs pointed to Jackson's retiring, Coach K would have kept the door open wider. As it stands now, don't consider it closed. "Never" seems to have the same meaning to coaches as it does to Brett Favre.

Even though Jackson will evaluate his future on an annual basis, the thought process around the Lakers is that he doesn't want to walk away from potential championships as long as Bryant is one of the NBA's top players, and he's also intrigued enough by the prospect of coaching the mercurial Ron Artest that it could prolong his stay.

If Bryant still wields influence, another name to keep in mind is New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. That means that what LeBron James does or doesn't do in free agency next summer could be as significant to the Lakers as to the Knicks. If the Knicks fail to land an impact free agent in the 2010 derby and their program doesn't make progress, D'Antoni could come into play for the Lakers. That's another coach for whom Bryant has shown respect, a relationship that dates back to Bryant's youth in Italy when D'Antoni played there.

Another name that would probably get a nod from Bryant would be Lakers assistant Brian Shaw, a teammate on the three-peat squads at the start of the decade. When the Kobe-Shaq rift threatened to blow up the team at the start of the 2003-04 season, it was the recently retired Shaw who came down from his home in Oakland to broker a truce between the stars, a summit made possible by their mutual respect for Shaw, who was always one of the cooler (and balder) heads in the locker room.

[+] EnlargeBrian Shaw
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesLakers assistant Brian Shaw has yet to land a head-coaching job.

Shaw showed his leadership skills in a pregame speech before the Lakers' dramatic overtime victory in Game 4 of the 2009 Finals against Orlando. Scouting the Magic fell to Shaw in the Lakers' division of duties among the assistant coaches, but on this night Shaw didn't diagram any plays on the dry-erase board. After the Lakers watched video and Jackson addressed the team, it was Shaw's turn. Jackson noted the empty board. At that point, after playing the Magic twice in the regular season and three times in the playoffs, the Lakers had nothing to gain from X's and O's. Instead, Shaw told the players, it was simply up to them. He reminded them that when he played, he might have been a journeyman, but he felt confident when he stepped on the court with dominant players like Shaq and Kobe, a great coach in Jackson, veterans such as Ron Harper and Robert Horry. This 2009 group still had Jackson plus Bryant, the coldest player around, one of the best centers in Pau Gasol, one of the most versatile in Lamar Odom. There should be nothing to be afraid of. Afterward players said the speech gave them chills.

Shaw has interviewed for vacancies in Indiana, Sacramento, Phoenix and Chicago in the past without landing a head-coaching job. Some argue that after only four seasons as an assistant, he isn't ready yet. That would still be four more years of coaching experience than Vinny Del Negro had before he got the Chicago job last year.

If the Lakers want experience and resonance with their fan base in addition to Kobe approval, they could go after New Orleans coach Byron Scott, a three-time champion as a Lakers player in the 1980s whose return to Los Angeles for his final year in 1996-97 coincided with Bryant's rookie year. Scott coached the New Jersey Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003 and won the Coach of the Year award with the Hornets in 2008. While Scott said he is happy with the Hornets, they lack the financial clout of the Lakers and the nostalgic pull that franchise has on Scott, who grew up near the old Forum in Inglewood. In November he told the Los Angeles Times that the Lakers are "home for me. That's an organization that will be embedded in my heart for the rest of my life."

But history doesn't always guarantee a future with the Lakers. They haven't made a serious commitment to someone who came up through their own ranks since Pat Riley went from the radio booth to the bench to the head-coaching job in the 1980s. (And don't rule a Riley comeback out completely once Jackson retires. Riley's ownership stake in the Heat makes extracting him from Miami difficult, but that didn't keep the Lakers from talking to him in 2004.) The Lakers have brought back Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, their center on the five championships teams in the 1980s, although in his role as special assistant coach he doesn't even sit on the bench. It would be hard to imagine his making the giant stride straight to head coach.

For now, to borrow from one of the books that influenced Jackson, it's about the art of maintenance. Can Jackson stay healthy? Can Bryant stay at the top of his game? If the former somehow outlasts the latter, it changes everything. Once those 1,123 regular-season and playoff games in his first 13 seasons catch up to Bryant, will the Lakers job be quite as appealing? Would Jackson want to hold on to it?

Jackson has been known to beat it before the really bad days come around. He always seems to be gone before the roster purges, leaving behind high expectations but little talent (The Tim Floyd Experience). That could make a guy like Rambis want to stay in Minnesota, where he has a new GM who hired him and has publicly stated the team is not expected to contend soon. NBA jobs don't get any more low-pressure than that. (And sources said Rambis does not have a clause in his contract that frees him if the Lakers job opens, as some college coaches do for their alma mater or favorites.)

If the Lakers want to explore another option, they could look at current assistant Cleamons, whose sole previous head-coaching stop in Dallas found him caught in the middle of three feuding stars, who soon became former stars. Jason Kidd went first, then Don Nelson became the general manager and went into full mad-scientist mode, sending Jamal Mashburn to Miami and putting together a package that included Jim Jackson and Sam Cassell to get Shawn Bradley from New Jersey. Nelson fired Cleamons in December of the next season and took over the head-coaching job himself. Cleamons has been hoping for a head-coaching job since.

But he might never join a fraternity as small as the one he's in now, those who turned time at Phil Jackson's side into their own lengthy time in the light. For now, Jackson's light is still shining … even if it hasn't clearly illuminated a successor.

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.